Staggering

Frank Kermode

  • Roy Fuller: Writer and Society by Neil Powell
    Carcanet, 330 pp, £25.00, September 1995, ISBN 1 85754 133 2

One of Roy Fuller’s ‘Quatrains of an Elderly Man’ is called ‘Poetry and Whist’:

How enviable Herrick’s
Fourteen hundred lyrics!
  Though, as the Scot complained when they dealt him all
The trumps, a lot of them were small.

The envy seems unjustified, for Fuller must have written far more than 1400 lyrics – indeed there are more than that in the Collected Poems of 1985, with dozens more to come.

Some of Herrick’s are small indeed:

To Print our Poems, the propulsive cause
Is Fame, (the breath of popular applause.)

Worth printing? Fuller might have thought so if only because ‘propulsive’ is the sort of unexpectedly posh word he rather enjoyed, either for its own sake or for the sake of a cosy joke, the humour of the Blackpool breakfast table he always fondly remembered. Another Herrick, somewhat more in the elderly Fuller manner:

When one is past, another care we have,
Thus woe succeeds a woe; as wave a wave.

The only thing missing from this aperçu is any touch of self-critical humour, as in Fuller’s ‘shopping list of fleshly ills’. What Fuller tends to comment on – though often with equal brevity – is, as a rule, less general, more personal, rueful and wise, but less incontrovertibly and complacently wise than this observation of Herrick’s. He made many poetic jottings and characteristically would start a piece off with ‘Odd how ...’ or ‘Strange that ...’

Feeling my heart about to accelerate,
I swallow a pill of phenobarbitone.
Odd how one enjoys the bitterness, knowing
It will fade ...

Or, from a poem about being 65:

Strange that obsessive observation seems
To be an overture to verse ...

The habit was deprecated much earlier:

In this the thirty-ninth year of
my age ... it seems
That any old subject fits into my verse.

Among the New Poems, published when he was still under sixty but already complaining regularly of the ills of old age, there is one that begins thus: ‘Rising at dawn to pee ...’ He will note the unavoidable presence, so familiar to the ageing, of the vitreous floater, which your GP tells you not to worry about; annoying though the phenomenon undoubtedly is, it is regarded as harmless, one of the lesser human problems, but not too trivial to be noticed here.

The last years of Fuller’s life saw an extraordinary outpouring of poems. His son, the poet John Fuller, aware of the great quantity already published in his father’s declining years, was surprised to find a posthumous mass of additional typescripts. Last Poems,[*] selected by John Fuller from this cache, includes an aubade beginning ‘Actions on waking: inserting some upper teeth ... socks / Achieved with grunting’ and going on to this self-perception:

To plough through the prosaic to poetry –
The only way of versing that I know.
The life so simple, the dreaming so bizarre.

Fifty years or so earlier the poetry was sometimes much more strict, as in the fine opening poem of Fuller’s third collection, A Lost Season (1944):

For those who are in love and are exiled
Can never discover
How to be happy: looking upon the wild
They see for ever

The cultivated acre of their pain ...

The prose here was wartime homesickness, commonplace as well as painful, but the poetry has what may now seem a slightly dated exactness and elegance, learned in part from Auden. Fuller was well known in the early Forties as a war poet, and there was a great demand for war poets. The experiences offered by the Navy were for the most part strictly prosaic, but some of them he turned, with ambitious care, into good poems. I have heard A Lost Season called his best book, but that seems rather insulting when you remember a half-century of technical enterprise, a virtually incessant quest for his own voice, and for poetry everywhere detected, even when the immediate occasion is picking up a senior citizen’s bus pass, or taking a pair of shoes to be mended (‘Your welt has gone’).

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[*] Sinclair-Stevenson, 104 pp., £14.99 and £7.99, May 1993, 1 85619 295 4.